08 February 2013

Unicorns again

A media release from Deakin University has announced that
There is no right to privacy, in fact the push for more rights to privacy is irrelevant in the face of social media and technological advances, Deakin University’s Head of the Law School, Professor Mirko Bagaric argues in a new book to be launched in Canberra today. 
Described by Tony Abbott as involving  "big thinkers on big ideas" the book  is Future Proofing Australia, The Right Answers for Our Future,  compiled by Senator Brett Mason and Daniel Wood and featuring essays by figures such as Cardinal George Pell.

The media release helpfully indicates that
 As an expert on legal and moral philosophy and regular media commentator and columnist, this is familiar territory for Professor Bagaric who is no stranger to public or intellectual debate. “Social reform and addressing moral and legal issues is one of the most complex tasks which face governments,” he said. “In areas such as health and transport change is driven by empirically demonstrated improvements yet on social and moral issues there are no agreed criteria for measuring and evaluating competing claims. ...  Professor Bagaric said one of the emerging issues facing society is the right to privacy.
“The right to privacy has blossomed in recent decades, to the point where it has developed into an enforceable legal right in many countries.
“The existence of a right to privacy has been assumed, but not proven and no one has rigorously analysed whether privacy is desirable, until now.” 
No one "has rigorously analysed whether privacy is desirable"? Really?

The release goes on to state that
Professor Bagaric said his essay explored whether a strong right to privacy improved human prosperity as well as the legal protection accorded to privacy.
“I look at the nature of rights and how they should be evaluated and balanced out in the face of competing rights and the common good,” he said.
“I suggest that based on that analysis there is no demonstrable need for a strong right to privacy, in fact it would damage society.”
Professor Bagaric said privacy was a late 20th Century, early 21st Century invention and reflected a highly individualistic society which feared the technology it had developed.
“The current legal focus and level of discussion concerning the right to privacy is an illustration of the human propensity to lose perspective,” he said. ...
Professor Bagaric said privacy is a code for secrecy and was normally the refuge of the guilty, paranoid and misguided.
“It results in a less informed, less transparent and less enlightened community,” he said.
“The truth about privacy is that the more we know about other people, the clearer it becomes that they are like us, it leads to a reduction in stereotypes and prejudices.
“Less, not more privacy, benefits the community.”
That appears to be an echo of Bagaric's 22 April 2007 op ed in The Age, in which he stated that
privacy is a middle-class invention by people with nothing else to worry about. Normally they would have every right to live in their moral fog, but not when their confusion permeates the feeble minds of law-makers and puts the innocent at risk.
The right to privacy is the adult equivalent of Santa Claus and unicorns. No one has yet been able to identify where the right to privacy comes from and why we need it. In fact, the right to privacy is destructive of our wellbeing. It prevents us attaining things that really matter, such as safety and security and makes us fear one another.
A strong right to privacy is no more than a request for secrecy - refuge of the guilty, paranoid and misguided, none of whom should be heeded in sorting through the moral priorities of the community.
I'll confine my comment to expression of hope that I'm one of the 'misguided' rather than 'paranoid' or 'guilty'. A right to privacy is explicitly recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in other human rights agreements. It features in a range of Australian statute law and is evident in English common law that predates the dreaded "late 20th Century".

People may well want to live without improper interference - for example to be protected from peeping toms - and that desire does not signal that they are looking for the refuge of "the guilty, paranoid and misguided". As I commented to a journalist this morning, the release concides with payments by News in the UK over the egregious abuses that resulted in the Leveson report.

It also coincides with the third reading of the Summary Offences (Filming Offences) Amendment Bill 2012 in South Australia, which among other things deals with -
  • filming of (a) another person in a state of undress in circumstances in which a reasonable person would expect to be afforded privacy; or (b) another person engaged in a private act in circumstances in which a reasonable person would expect to be afforded privacy; or(c) another person's private region in circumstances in which a reasonable person would not expect that the person's private region might be filmed;
  • distribution of an invasive image, ie a moving or still image of a person (a) engaged in a private act [ie a sexual act of a kind not ordinarily done in public; or using a toilet]; or (b) in a state of undress such that the person's bare genital or anal region is visible
As noted in past conference papers, there are no indications that Prof Bagaric has published all of his personal financial information online, walked naked down Collins Street at rush hour or invited the world into every part of his private life.

Perhaps he too values aspects of privacy, albeit not living in that "moral fog" and not being a member of the middle class "with nothing else to worry about".

We need to be careful in making sense of polemic. Privacy isn't an absolute but nor is it trivial, never appropriate, necessarily a shield for criminals or "an middle-class invention" by people who believe in unicorns or santa and have nothing else to worry about.